Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Radio 3’s loss, but Roger Wright will be the right man for this region

Roger Wright

Roger Wright - Credit: Archant

It was a slow but slippery slope, my drift towards Radio 3. Way back in the late 90s, I found that much of Radio 1’s output had begun to sound like someone putting up a garden shed.

Like a rabbit flushed from a cornfield, I scuttled over to Radio 2, only to face the glib morning blandishments of Sir Terry Wogan. This was before the present Mr Shouty took over the breakfast show with his posse of loud London yups. The word “puerile” does not adequately describe what passes for broadcasting here.

“What’s the most embarrassing thing YOU’VE ever done in a traffic jam? How COOL is that? Now here’s the Nyeez.” You’ll get the gist. In earlier days of broadcasting, trainee BBC announcers were given the guideline that they should address the listener “as if talking to a bright 12-year-old”. How I miss those dizzy aspirational heights.

Night-time Radio 2 can be passable at times but more often acts as a sort of musical morgue where you pay your respects to those marginalised music forms currently lying in state. Here you’ll find your blues, country, folk and jazz. Come in. Look for the name-tag tied to the toe. Pull out the shelf. Recognise it? You’ll never hear it on daytime radio again. Nod. Shed a little tear. Move on.

Music tends not to be played nowadays, often it’s “curated”. As for Radio 4: obviously it’s worthy, good, and works very well – provided that you’re a neurotic news junkie wishing to top-up your misery index the minute you wake up. Actually, I don’t wake up, I come round each morning, as if from a long operation. When this occurs, I don’t want the queasy details of missing aircraft, dying eco-systems, “broken” economies, or war – any more than I want to hear Radio 2’s adult media professionals, cynically pretending to be teenagers.

From the closure of pirate radio in 1967, the enforced gaiety of a newly-created Radio 1 was always like having your parents sitting in the kitchen at your 16th birthday party. To find them still hanging around 45 years later, supervising the music at your retirement do is a cultural tragedy beyond simple description. So I fled to Radio 3. Where is all this going? It’s not so much where it’s going but what may soon be coming our way.

Roger Wright, the current head of Radio 3, will step down from the post soon. His new appointment will be as chief executive of Aldeburgh Music. Roger Wright did more than any other individual to provide this jaded old Essex rock’n’roller with sanctuary from the sheer hopelessness of BBC pop radio; an institution which has always been the sound of a trendy headmaster pedalling frantically to keep up with his year 10 pupils.

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For those of you who like a little salt with your musical porridge, I can recommend Radio 3’s Late Junction. As diverse as it gets, this show usually runs Tuesdays to Thursdays from 11pm until late. It contains all the stuff that you won’t find anywhere else, from Gamelan bell renditions, through to 1930s Tyrolean yodelling.

It’s a lost property office, where all the mislaid umbrellas, and abandoned prosthetic limbs of the world’s musical genres eventually wash up.

When pop music became too orthodox for me, almost out of despair, I began to re-examine that music which occupied the national airwaves before rock arrived: the composers Eric Coates, Vivian Ellis, Sydney Torch and Robert Farnon.

The British light music of the mid 20th Century is brilliant, breezy stuff, full of optimism and quirk. Much of it is even more remarkable for having been created between or even during the two world wars.

Over the last decade, I’ve built up a small collection of these “light classics”, as serious classical snobs call them. The best modern renditions of such pieces are to be found on the Hyperion record label, played by the New London Orchestra, conducted by Ronald Corp. When I expose old blues fans or folkies to this music it can provoke interesting reactions. Oddly enough, a few regard it as being somehow musically “right-wing”. I find this funny. This was the music still playing on BBC’s Light Programme until the psychedelic 1960s, when the station’s controllers finally realised that an entire generation was no longer listening.

It is partly Roger Wright, Radio 3’s outgoing head, whom I have to thank for my late enlightenment.

A few years ago, I met him briefly at a BBC do and was able to say how much I was getting to like these “light” classics. He suddenly called across the room: “Ronald, I have one of your fans here.” Thus, did I get to meet the great Ronald Corp, conductor of the New London Orchestra which I’d then only just discovered. There are those fusty souls who will tell you that Radio 3 has “dumbed down” during Mr Wright’s incumbency. They preferred the days when the station’s programming consisted of some bod in a black polo-neck putting the stylus arm down on a long Mahler symphony and leaving it there until the grim end.

Nowadays Radio 3 is rather more than this. For me, in recent years the station has opened up like an orchid, providing a sanctuary from the relentless tyranny of drum-machines, rolling bad news and inane DJ waffle. When Roger Wright comes to Aldeburgh, Radio 3’s loss may be our region’s gain.